Way back in 2009, Tone2’s Gladiator 2 was one of the hottest softsynths around.
With its enormous, punchy sound and genuinely ‘different’ Harmonic Content Morphing oscillator technology, it proved a popular choice among the dance music fraternity in particular.
Now, almost a decade later, the German developer has put Gladiator back in the limelight with a second full version update. It’s a free update from v2 but still a premium-priced synth otherwise... so can it hold its ground in today’s softsynth arena?
At first glance, upgraders would be forgiven for thinking that the installation had failed, as Gladiator 3 (VST/AU) looks very similar to its predecessor indeed. Closer inspection reveals changes to the layout, the replacement of orange backlighting effects with yellow, and sharper text, but we’re a little disappointed Tone2 haven’t taken the opportunity to modernise the graphics - it looks kind of old. Still, at least the GUI is now resizable. Clicking the Editor Size button toggles through four views: large and small Rack and Editor, Rack folding down to just the top section for preset surfing, and Editor being the full interface.
Below the surface, too, Gladiator 3 is fundamentally the same synth as before, the changes largely centring on additions to existing modes and menus - users of v2 will immediately feel at home.
More is more
Gladiator’s signal flow starts with four Harmonic Content Morphing (HCM) oscillators, arranged in pairs, and a fifth sample playback oscillator that draws on a ton of noise, percussive and other sounds. The HCM oscillators are the synth’s main defining feature, presenting a nuanced take on wavetable synthesis, as described in What exactly is HCM?
Each oscillator can apply one or two Modifiers to its morph-table waveform, selected from an extensive list of harmonics-shaping functions, and applied via their amount knobs. From faux filters and targeted removal of harmonics to modulation-style effects (flanging, chorusing, etc) and time-bending manoeuvres, it’s a spectacular array of processing possibilities right at the oscillator level.
The outputs of the oscillators in each pair are mixed or cross-modulated in various ways (summing, subtraction or multiplication; the even harmonics of one with the odd harmonics of the other; AM, FM, etc), and optionally processed with another harmonic Modifier and/ or a Phase Modulator. This last offers another menu of choices for changing the harmonic phase relationship, with ten new options for v3 generating laser zaps, sub harmonics and noise.
The direction and style of playback through the two final mixed morph-tables is defined by the selection made in the Morph Mode menu, and its associated controls. New in v3: noise and 25/50% ping-pong looping modes.
Another area of improvement for Gladiator 3 is the unison section. This was already well stocked with stacking and detuning options, and now it includes 18 unison chords - minor/major third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, jazz, etc – in two-, three- and four-voice configurations.
The technology at the heart of Gladiator 3’s oscillators, Harmonic Content Morphing (HCM) has its roots in established wavetable techniques but is rather more specific in its concept and realisation. The primary goal with HCM is the synthesis of real-world instrument sounds (guitars, trumpets, the human voice, etc), for convincing emulation and - more importantly - as the basis for entirely new tones.
Unlike the single-cycle waveforms loaded into a regular wavetable oscillator, an HCM ‘morph-table’ captures a series of 256 tiny, smoothly interpolated snapshots, each comprising 512 harmonics that are FFT transformed and ‘sequenced’ to recreate the resampled source material as it changes over time. A morph-table is loaded and pitched just like any other oscillator waveform, but - crucially - the movement of the ‘playhead’ through the snapshots upon triggering can be manipulated, looped and sped up/slowed down, and its harmonic shaping can be altered via the Morph Mode options and spectral Modifiers, as discussed in the main text.
There’s a huge library of HCM morph-tables included with Gladiator 3, and three add-on Expansion packs available should you want more.
Despite their unusual underlying technology, Gladiator’s oscillators are actually quite easy to use, and there’s endless fun to be had messing about with the Modifiers and Phase Modulators, and experimenting with mix settings.
Things get rather more conventional after the oscillators, but no less abundant in terms of numbers and versatility. There are 40 filter types onboard, 34 distortion and FX processors (loaded into one Distortion and two Effect slots), and 27 phase-adjustable waveforms for the two main LFOs, six of them new ‘Stair’ steppers. Four ADSFR (the F is for Fade) envelopes provide modulation of filter, amp and custom parameters; the Step LFO enables the programming of custom modulation sequences; and the Arpeggiator takes care of automatic note and chord generation. Beyond the additions we’ve already mentioned, Gladiator 3 also bolts on a new preset browser, a 324x oversampling mode, improved microtuning algorithms, mousewheel support and several other lesser bits and pieces - see the Tone2 website for the full run-down.
Thumbs up or down?
As an update to Gladiator 3, the big stories here are the new unison and loop modes, added Modifiers and resizable interface. Not a huge amount of essential stuff, then, and were Tone2 charging existing users for it, we’d be questioning the need to upgrade. Happily, though, they’re not, so we can easily forgive the fact that this feels more like a major point release than a full version jump.
Ultimately, despite its age and slightly anachronistic interface (there’s no drag and drop of modulators on targets, for example, or visual representation of parameter modulation, as is pretty much de rigueur these days), Gladiator 3 remains a true powersynth in every sense of the term. Majoring in big, brash, decidedly digital (yet often surprisingly warm) and intricately animated sounds of all kinds - basses, leads, plucks, pads, arps, sequenced grooves, the lot - it’s still as rewarding an instrument for dance and electronic production as it was ten years ago.